One of the problems we have when teaching five element acupuncture is how to introduce students to the concept of the elements and the individual characteristics by which we learn to recognize them in human beings. To do this we have to draw on some of the descriptions which have been attributed to them over the years, best illustrated at a very early age by those set out in the Suwen. We have all learnt, for example, that the colour associated with Fire is red, and Metal’s emotion is grief, and this has been repeated numerous times since then in lectures and books, such as mine. The problem here is that these descriptions can soon, perhaps all too soon, develop into stereotypes, and stereotypes which risk taking no account of the more fluid, often quite blurred outlines with which the elements reveal themselves to us, and which we have to learn to work with. Human beings do not fit into fixed frameworks like this, much as we would sometimes like them to.
This certainly doesn’t make for an easy life as a five element acupuncturist, because the elements appear in so many different guises. We are formed of a unique combination of all five elements, requiring us to sift through all sorts of gradations of colour, sound, smell and emotion which these imprint upon us. This means that what we eventually may decide is the weeping voice of a Metal patient may be overlaid by quite a lot of singing or laughing, tempting us initially to think the patient’s element may be Earth or Fire. The subtle interactions of all the sensory signs the elements place on us may appear to overshadow those of the dominant guardian element, and have eventually to be discarded before we reach below them to those which represent our element’s true imprint upon us. This makes a five element diagnosis into a form of sifting process which requires time and patience, rather than the moment of intuitive recognition that some people like to feel it should be.
This is why the different characteristics the elements show will also be experienced differently by us in ways which reflect the influences our particular guardian element has upon us. We will each have our own individual approach to other people, coloured not only by the needs and responses of our guardian element, but also by our life experiences. From the point of view of being a five element acupuncturist, this means that we develop our own individual take on the elements.
The crucial thing here is that each of us will react in quite different ways to observing the elements’ presence in our patients, because our responses to the elements in their different manifestations will be unique. My appreciation of a patient’s cheerfulness, which I may ascribe to the Fire element, may well differ from a fellow acupuncturist’s, who may see this patient as being of another element, because he or she experiences a person’s expressions of joy differently. Here a practitioner’s own element will often be a determining factor, which is why it is so important that each practitioner is constantly aware of how much their own element may be colouring their perceptions of the elements in their patients.
We must not be frightened of acknowledging that we will inevitably have our own individual take on the elements which may well differ from that of our fellow acupuncturists. What is important is that we gradually hone our understanding of these elemental manifestations down to some common descriptions of the individual elements which practical experience has taught us to be true, and which we then learn to use as part of our individual diagnostic templates. The important thing here is to base our understanding on solid evidence from our own practice. If the result of the treatments I have given a particular patient has confirmed that this patient is of the Water element, this is one step further along the path to recognizing this element’s particular sensory signatures in future patients. I can then add the characteristics of this particular patient to the template I am drawing up for the Water element, now based on further evidence from my practice. This is how we gradually build up our understanding of the manifestations of each element patient by patient slowly over the years.
I always say that it requires courage to be a five element acupuncturist, since we have nothing but our own personal reactions to the different elements to help us towards a diagnosis. We may initially base our diagnostic decisions on some of the stereotypes pointed out to us by more experienced practitioners, but in the final analysis we have to be brave enough eventually to develop our own take on the different elements.